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Empire Strikes: GE Scientists Studied Lightning Atop New York’s Iconic Skyscraper

Electrical storms and lightning have been around since Earth’s infancy – possibly even sparking first life. Yet 4.5 billion years later we still understand strikingly little about how they work, including such basics like what causes lightning and how it travels. That’s not exactly reassuring, given an estimated 100 lightning bolts hit the surface of the planet every second, each carrying between 100 million to 1 billion volts. (American sockets supply just 110 volts and European 220 volts.) Their energy can raise the air temperature to 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit in a few millionths of a second.

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The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that if a person lives to be 80, the chances of her or him being struck by lightning in the U.S. are 1 in 3,000. (The odds of winning Powerball are 1 in 292,000,000.) Lightning strikes kill 30 Americans on average every year. In the 1920s, GE set up the High Voltage Engineering Laboratory in Pittsfield, Mass., to study lightning. The work included a “special project” exploring the phenomena from a room on the 102th floor of New York City’s Empire State Building – see the video below. The skyscraper still gets struck 100 times per year, on average.

GE even built a million-volt lightning generator in 1922, studying for the first time the effects of lightning strikes and power surges on electrical systems in a controlled laboratory setting, says Chris Hunter, curator of the GE collection at the Museum of Innovation and Science in Schenectady. Take a look at the history.

 

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GE engineers test an indoor lightning generator for the 1939 – 1940 New York World’s Fair. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library archives and brought to life by Kevin Weir / flux machine.

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The cover of GE’s 1951 Annual Report included an exterior shot of the High Voltage Lab. Image credit: Museum of Innovation and Science Schenectady

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The team studying lightning on top of the Empire State Building used an early high-speed camera developed by Sir Charles Boys to photograph strikes. Below: A description of the work. Image credits: Museum of Innovation and Science Schenectady

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GE built a million-volt lightning generator, studying for the first time the effects of lightning strikes and power surges on electrical systems in a controlled laboratory setting. Images credit: Museum of Innovation and Science Schenectady.

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Thomas Edison and Charles Steinmetz examine pieces of isolators struck by Steinmetz’s lightning generator. Image credits: Museum of Innovation and Science Schenectady

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